Car reviews - Suzuki - Grand Vitara - range
Refinement, smooth new 2.4-litre petrol four-cylinder, V6 performance, off-road ability
Room for improvement
Lack of cargo space, auto transmissions, ground clearance
28 Aug 2008
By PHILIP LORD
ALTHOUGH market analysts can be wrong, they will argue that people who buy a compact SUV do not strictly-speaking drive them off-road. They are buying a station wagon that sits them higher than a car in traffic for better visibility and has a higher hip point, making it easier to get in and out of.
They also want four-wheel drive, so that they have a suitable traction system to handle the occasional jaunt to the snow or a slippery gravel road, or simply for added confidence in wet or greasy conditions.
Where image is concerned, with a compact SUV you can say to the world that you may have a healthy outdoors lifestyle - without hurting the environment - even if you only spend most of your time sitting in traffic eating cream buns and burning large quantities of fuel.
Yet Suzuki has stayed true to its off-road origins by continuing to offer a civilised, compact SUV that also has the hardware to go off-road.
While we would hate to see Suzuki lose the off-road features it has (such as dual-range full-time 4WD), it's fair to say that the greatest sales volume in this segment is generated by products that provide much less off-road ability.
With this first upgrade of the third-generation model - just three years after introduction - Suzuki has made an effort to improve the Grand Vitara’s performance and refinement. To make it more like its competition, in other words - without losing its rugged nature.
The new 2.4-litre is very linear in its power delivery, with tractable low-rpm performance and smooth revving nature at high rpm. It gets a little raucous from around 5000rpm on its way to the 6500rpm cut-out.
The carry-over turbo-diesel engine, with its new dual-mass flywheel, is much smoother - athough it is still not the quietest diesel in the business.
The new 3.2-litre V6 is a much better engine than the 2.7-litre it replaces. It has a clear improvement in power but like Suzuki V6s ever since the 2.0-litre V6 in the first Grand Vitara, mid-range torque does not seem its strong suit. Perhaps we’re spoilt by the current crop of mega-torque turbo-diesels.
Maybe the way the automatic transmission operates has something to do with the V6’s apparent lack of torque.
The five-speed auto seems to have the right pick of ratios and in Drive it is a very smooth, subtle shifter. However, it simply won’t reach into the power band on kickdown though, resulting in sluggish overtaking performance.
Once you discover the ‘Power’ button (hidden from the driver’s view on the left side of the gear selector) the V6 comes alive with a deep lunge into the rev band. The high-revving nature of the engine rewards with quick - if not RAV4 V6-quick - results.
The auto’s gated lever is not the best of this type, with gears awkward to select manually and in the five-speed auto both second and third gears share a slot – meaning you cannot hold second gear - the transmission will eventually shift to third gear.
The five-speed manual, standard in the 2.4-litre (and the only transmission for the turbo-diesel), is direct enough but does have a tendency to baulk in the one-two plane under quick gearchanges and the shifter has side-to-side movement not normally associated with the most recent manual gearboxes. Not bad, but not brilliant either.
The four-speed auto (optional in the 2.4) really is crying out for another ratio. The gap between first and second gear (about 2000rpm) is too wide and the 2.4 struggles to find the power or torque at the right time.
The Grand Vitara seems large enough for a couple or a couple with young children, but otherwise it becomes a stretch for interior space.
There seem a few elements of the interior that are surprisingly old-school for a three-year-old design.
For example, where many other manufacturers have a seat back that folds onto a compact seat base to present a flat long load floor, the Grand Vitara’s rear seat double folds to rest against the back of the front seats - and has a strap to hold it in place, just like most of the SUV wagons of the 1990s did.
Even though Suzuki appears to have made the seat back and base as slim as possible, this design just doesn’t allow the cargo space that other more clever designs do.
Another design issue is that the rear seat is set back between the wheel wells, making the rear seat narrow for three occupants. Most new designs place the rear seat ahead of the wheel wells, allowing a wider seat and better access, too.
Cargo space is acceptable, given that the Grand Vitara is a slimmer compact SUV than some other compacts that have seemingly morphed into medium SUVs. There is a low loading lip, four tie-down points and four hooks on the cargo walls.
Despite a rear seat that is on the narrow side and feels more like a perch than a lounge, it is all comfy goodness up in the front. The bucket seats are supportive and comfortable for long stints on the rough roads served up in the Northern Territory.
The perceived quality of the Grand Vitara doesn’t seem quite as good as some of its competitors. Yet on the launch - despite more than 300km bone-shaking rough NT roads - we experienced no problems.
The Grand Vitara is not the most dynamic compact in its class, with a front-end that prefers to run wide with a fair degree of bodyroll and while the steering is direct enough, it could offer better road feel. The story is better with the optional 18-inch wheels, but the Grand Vitara’s chassis is built for comfort, not fast cornering.
That does not mean that the Grand Vitara is like an SUV of old to drive - it can be turned-in nicely in tight dirt corners. It’s better than a RAV4, but like the RAV4, the Bridgestone Dueler tyres don’t seem to do any favours for grip.
Ride quality and body rigidity appear to be very good. We tested the new model on the Mereenie Loop Road - one of the worst possible dirt road surfaces you could expect to encounter, with corrugations, bulldust holds and potholes - and the Grand Vitatra took it in its stride.
Although the three-door has a 200mm shorter wheelbase, it feels almost as planted on the road as the five-door, which is not always the case with a short-wheelbase model.
The standard stability control - which is not as intrusive as other stability control systems - quells any wayward behaviour anyway. ESP is switchable in high range at speeds up to 30km/h - beyond which is permanently on. ESP deactivates entirely in low-range, although traction control remains on.
The off-road performance of the Grand Vitara is very good, although the low-range reduction is not quite what it could be on the V6. The V6’s hill descent control is worth using, as without it the high-revving V6 doesn’t have quite enough engine braking and will run away on steeper stuff.
Bumpy high-crown roads can be problematic with the Grand Vitara because it doesn’t have a surfeit of clearance to begin with and as the independent suspension compresses, clearance is even less. The exhaust is quite low at the break-over point and the three-door’s rear muffler also is exposed.
The inclusion of traction control will make a doddle of steep climbs, on which the previous model’s open front and rear diffs would cause the Grand Vitara to come to a halt. While the river sand we drove though at the Finke River did not present any problems, the traction control may become too intrusive for deep sand driving.
There might be bigger, faster and sportier SUV compacts but none offer the blend of versatility that the Grand Vitara does. More luggage space would endear it more to families and no matter what Suzuki does, the hard-core off-roaders will never be quite be happy with it.
Yet if you do drive on steep, slippery state forest tracks on the weekend but want a smooth, user-friendly city car, it would be hard to go past the Grand Vitara, especially in new 2.4-litre form.
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